Nov. 16, 2011
By Aaron Fitt, Baseball America -
It has been a rocky few years for Arizona State baseball.
An investigation into NCAA rules violations led to a dramatic, high-profile coaching change and eventually to scholarship reductions and a one-year postseason ban, which the Sun Devils will serve in 2012. Uncertainty about its postseason status hung over ASU's entire 2011 season, and the Devils entered their final regular-season game not knowing whether or not they would be eligible for the NCAA tournament that would begin the following week.
And of course, the top freshman in last year's recruiting class, outfielder Cory Hahn, suffered a devastating spinal injury early last spring, leaving him confined to a wheel chair.
That series of events could easily have crippled the program, but the players and coaches persevered. ASU won 43 games in 2011, winning a home regional and falling one victory shy of the College World Series. And in a striking sign of the vitality of the program, the Sun Devils look like the nation's biggest winner in college baseball's early signing period, which began on Nov. 9 and ends today.
Arizona State tied UCLA and Miami with the most recruits (seven) in Baseball America's Top 100 high school prospects list for the 2012 draft. And ASU's class stands out more than any other for its depth of impact prospects who stand a legitimate chance to show up on campus next fall.
The first time those players set foot on campus during recruiting visits, the energy and spirit of the coaches and players won them over, assuaging any concerns about the state of the program in the wake of the NCAA violations.
"It hasn't been easy," recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett said, referring to the tribulations of the last couple of years. "But we've got a choice to make every day about who we want to be and what we stand for, because all this other stuff--the history and tradition and all that other stuff--that's never going away. There's a strong regard for Arizona State baseball, I think. The tough questions need to be asked, and they're all good questions. But coach (Tim) Esmay is a wonderful ambassador for the program, being an alum, and they come and see his passion for the program. They come out here and kind of feel it.
"We don't try to recruit from afar; we want people here, to sense it and feel it. I think they walk away like, 'Are you kidding me? I'd like to be a part of something that special.' "
The Devils might not recruit from afar, but they land recruits from far and near. ASU's 22-man signing class features eight in-state recruits and players from seven other states plus Canada. Of the seven players in the Top 100, three are from Arizona (No. 55 Mitch Nay, No. 73 Tony Blanford and No. 75 Willie Ethington), two are from California (No. 65 Kieran Lovegrove and No. 89 Paul Blackburn), one is from Washington (No. 30 Clint Coulter) and one is from Colorado (No. 83 Ryan Burr). Lefthander Brett Lilek is ASU's latest gem from the state of Illinois, where the Sun Devils also found former stars Seth Blair and Johnny Ruettiger. Ryan Kellogg, an Ontario native, gives Arizona State yet another physical lefthander from a cold-weather locale.
Not many programs can recruit nationally the way Arizona State can--a testament to the enduring power of the ASU baseball brand.
"I think some of those guys were probably ready to get out of the snow," Jewett said. "Once we get them out here, fill them in on the great history and tradition of the program and the things it stands for, and they come out here and see the weather, they see we have a bunch of good stuff going on."
While many programs are loading up on less physical, speed-and-defense-oriented players in the BBCOR era, Arizona State is not shying away from big power hitters and big power pitchers. Coulter (a high-energy catcher) and Nay (a third baseman) stand out for their provocative righthanded power potential. Switch-hitting outfielder Cullen O'Dwyer, infielder Dalton DiNatale, outfielder Chris Beall, catcher R.J. Ybarra and two-way talents Burr and David Graybill "are all big monsters," as Jewett put it, and all have chances to be impact hitters.
Pitching was ASU's top priority with this class, which is loaded with quality arms. Righthanders Ethington, Blanford and Burr are all capable of reaching the mid-90s, while Blackburn and Lovegrove have quality three-pitch repertoires and have reached 93 at times. Lefties Lilek and Kellogg offer intriguing projection.
All in all, it's a balanced class with front-line talent and depth, and it makes a major statement about the direction of the program.
"I think this class obviously speaks volumes about what kind of kids we've got, what kind of families we've got--they still believe," Jewett said. "People are excited to be a part of it. I know I am."